Not Item!

Australian political parties and election campaigns are often said to have become professionalised, yet the term lacks clear definition and the nature of professionalisation as a process of institutional change is poorly articulated.  My research, 'Campaign Professionals', elaborates the nature, timing and drivers of these changes in Australian elections and political parties. My principal research method has been depth interviews with present and former officials of the two major Australian political parties, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Liberal Party of Australia, who collectively constitute the strategically important but long neglected third face in Katz and Mair’s (1993) model of political parties.

The interview data reveal the distinctive identity of party officials as ‘campaign professionals’, and provide a robust definition of professionalism in a party context: the officials are paid, they have high levels of technical competence and they are devoted as partisans to the electoral interests of their client, the party. The interviews also provide new evidence about professionalisation as a process of institutional change. The national party officials are central to this process, creating a professional campaign model through:

  • centralising campaign authority in their own hands and coordinating campaign activity across the whole party organisation. This has been achieved at the expense of state divisions of the party and local branches;  campaigning at the electorate level is conducted within tight parameters imposed from the centre including, not infrequently, the selection of the local candidate. Even at the parliamentary level, the influence of Head Office has expanded, in the pursuit of electoral success, to exert significant influence on policy formation and even leadership selection;
  • taking responsibility for developing and implementing campaign strategies, not just during formal campaign periods but on a virtually continual basis throughout the political calendar; and
  • acquiring - from taxpayers, corporate donors and supporters - the massively increased amounts of financial and other resources necessary to sustain this new style of campaigning.

Political parties are in some senses increasingly embattled – with radically declining party membership, a weakened linkage role, and increased volatility in the electorate. But while grass roots membership has steadily declined, Head Offices have grown in size, resources, influence, and professionalism. They have gained new personnel – both by employing staff and by hiring external consultants – who have brought specialist skills of market research, advertising and media management. As this research demonstrates, parties’ strengthened campaigning capacities, with national party officials as central agents, ensures they remain strongly entrenched and empowered in the Australian political landscape.

For a variety of reasons, this expansion of Head Offices has not been well documented, its causes and significance remain poorly understood, and there are many gaps in our knowledge about it.  Previous studies of Australian political parties have tended to overlook or ignore the role of the Head Office; no comprehensive study exists of the evolving Head Office role in conducting election campaigns. In general, as Webb and Kolodny (2006) note of the United Kingdom, the literature on party employees remains “one of the most under-researched fields in the study of political parties”.

Who works in a party Head Office and what do they do? What are their backgrounds and skills? What does planning and running an election campaign involve and how has this changed over recent decades? What is the relationship between the party officials and the external consultants they engage and direct?  Who has the more influential voice in campaigns? To whom are the external consultants accountable? In particular, who heads the Head Office?

The research seeks to address such questions through interviews with senior executive officials of both major parties. In the ALP, this official carries the title of National Secretary (previously, Federal Secretary). From the mid-1960s to 2010, there have been nine National Secretaries:  Cyril Wyndham (in office 1963-69), Mick Young (1969-1972), David Combe (1973-81), Bob McMullan (1981-88), Bob Hogg (1988-93), Gary Gray (1993-2000), Geoff Walsh (2000-03), Tim Gartrell (2003-08) and Karl Bitar (2008-11). In the Liberal Party of Australia, the counterpart official is titled Federal Director. Over the same period, there have been six Federal Directors:  Bede Hartcher (1969-1974), Tim Pascoe (1974), Tony Eggleton (1974-91), Andrew Robb (1991-97), Lynton Crosby (1997-2003) and Brian Loughnane (2003-present).

Stephen Mills